Over the last four days, I’ve given you a thematic look at Great Powers: America and the World After Bush, the next book by Pentagon’s New Map author Thomas Barnett, that goes on sale February 5th.  Because of the meatiness of the material, I mostly stuck to summary, trying to synthesize some far-ranging ideas into easily digestible bites.  In this post, I’ll take a more analytical look at the book as a whole.

The Big Picture

First off, it’s an incredibly ambitious project.  In 408 pages (at least in the uncorrected pre-publication proof), Barnett provides a soup-to-nuts retrospective and prescriptive look at the entire geopolitical universe.  He covers early American history, the good and bad of the Bush administration, and a strategic and economic look at every region of the world.

While I read with my political scientist hat on, I don’t think there’s much I could have cut if I’d had my editor’s hat on.  I may have gotten it down to 350 pages by consolidation of themes but that may well have come at the cost of necessary repetition of ideas across thematic areas that, as good teachers like Barnett know, is necessary for students to finally “get” an idea.

Aside from perhaps Thomas Friedman, there’s not a more optimistic thinker who’s worth reading.  While by no means a Pollyanna, Barnett sees the world as in much better shape than most of his counterparts in the national security policy community and sees it becoming progressively better.   The things that keep most strategists and economists up at night are mere bumps in the road that, if properly managed, will lead to a more peaceful, prosperous planet.

While I’ve got plenty of quibbles along the way, being possessed of a more skeptical nature, Barnett’s fundamentally right on the big things.   While it no doubt causes much pain and displacement in the short term, globalization is both inevitable and fantastically good in the long term.  Further, Russia, China, Iran, and other regional powers don’t have to be our enemies.

Optimistic Pragmatism

One particularly interesting facet of Barnett’s thinking — and one that decidedly distinguishes him from the neoconservatives with whom he shares a strategic ambition — is that he combines an incredible optimism with a somewhat ruthless pragmatism.  He believes creating a Big Bang in the Middle East by invading Iraq was worth a shot and might have worked if we hadn’t handled it so incompetently.    Still, it didn’t work, so let’s face facts:  a Western style democracy isn’t going to spring up in Baghdad any time soon and, ultimately, “Iraq’s multiple struggles — both violent and merely political — are not ours to win or lose.”  So, we should simply, “Settle for what we can get now and remain dedicated to improving the situation over time.”

This is an incredibly difficult policy to maintain in a democracy.  Presidents are loathe to admit mistakes and, having invariably oversold the mission in order to generate public support for the war, it’s hard to simply take our ball and go home.   Granted, Barnett warns against making those mistakes to begin with.  But the tendency to make them is so longstanding and bipartisan that it may simply be hardwired into our system.

The Bush Years

He’s right, too, to give the Bush administration credit for managing our relationship with China, resisting the demand for protectionism and for — almost entirely without fanfare — making enormous strides in revitalizing our investment in Africa.

I’m less convinced that they did a good job vis-a-vis Russia.  Yes, it’s true that Russia’s reemergence as a major player was inevitable and perhaps so, too, was a return to a more authoritarian politics.  But the instant recognition of Kosovo’s independence and the push for expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep were poorly handled, poking the Bear needlessly without furthering American interest very much.

Similarly, while I was a staunch supporter of toppling Saddam Hussein and agree with Barnett that we need to finish the job, I was never a fan of the “Big Bang strategy” and have not been moved from that view by subsequent events or Barnett’s prose.

For the most part, I concur with Barnett on the 7 Deadly Sins of the Bush Foreign policy.   It’s a bit cute as a device and requires a bit of strain to fit but it ultimately works nicely.  The key takeaway is that the Bush team simply forgot that other countries have interests, too, and treated variance from its policies by friend and foe alike as treachery.  If the Obama administration could keep that one thing in mind, they will be far more successful than their predecessor.

That said, he goes too far in saying that, by the 2006 midterms, “America effectively yielded its global leadership for the first time since the end of the Carter administration.”  For reasons Barnett lays out throughout the book, that’s simply impossible.  The world may have been tired of Bush but there was no one else to provide leadership; America leads by default.


Barnett argues, correctly I think, that the United States is making a mistake in viewing China’s rise in a negative light.   We’re so far ahead as a military power that they’re never going to be a peer competitor and since we’re both nuclear powers, bilateral war is absurdly unthinkable, anyway.  Similarly, their emergence as an economic power may pose some inconveniences but it’s fantastic on just about every level — humanitarian, economic, and systemic.

The argument that China’s “state-guided” capitalism is not much different than our own “wide-open entrepreneurial capitalism” strikes me as a bit strained.  Then again, the global financial crisis has caused us to lurch somewhat closer to their model in recent months, so perhaps he’s just ahead of his time.

Nuclear Deterrence

Barnett is an outlier in his view of the spread of nuclear weapons to the likes of Iran and North Korea.  For example, Henry Kissinger recently told an Atlantic Council office that “if proliferation is not stopped now, it will project us into a world that will become morally unmanageable, in which there will be too many countries with too many varied incentives.”  Barnett  believes this ignores the long history of nuclear deterrence, in which proliferation has always led to greater stability, virtually assuring that possessor states don’t go to war with one another.    While I’m not thrilled with the idea of the Iranian mullahs — with an apocalyptic worldview not shared by any other nuclear power — getting the bomb, I believe Barnett’s right as least this far: it’s not worth a regional war to keep it from happening.

Islamist Terrorism

Like virtually everyone else in the expert community, Barnett thinks we’ve made a hash of the War on Terrorism, not least of which by declaring war on terrorism.   What’s unusual about his thinking is that he believes the Bush administration was largely successful in killing terrorists and relegating al Qaeda to a relatively minor nuisance.  The problem, as he sees it, is that we’ve achieved tactical success “while making no strategic headway” and done so at the costs of isolating ourselves from the international community.

We’ll never be able to kill enough terrorists to be safe.  Rather, we need to enlarge the problem and bring the parts of the world that breed terrorists into the wonderful world of globalization.    Barnett isn’t heedless of the costs — we’re likely to see violence increase in the short term as the angry young men fight us — but he argues that moving beyond “killing weeds” to “growing some lawn” requires empowering women and, ultimately, creating a middle class.  That means creating jobs, embracing the vast majority of Muslims who are not Islamist terrorists, and otherwise creating proper incentives for them to join to international community.

While I agree with every bit of that, my inner John Robb (of Global Guerrillas and Brave New War fame) tells me that a handful of bad actors can create enormous havoc at low cost.   I wonder if we’ve got the resolve to keep plugging away thinking about the long haul while absorbing short-term frustration.   Barnett thinks we can with proper leadership and smart choices in picking our battles — including strategic retreats when we pick wrong.  I hope he’s right but I’m dubious.

The Military

One thread woven throughout the book is the remarkable resilience, adaptability, and intelligence of the leaders of our armed forces.  While Barnett rightly criticizes them for having been too stubborn, too long in modeling themselves for major wars — “The army we took to Iraq was the army that the army itself wanted to use there, the one it had been buying and building for the previous thirty years, ignoring the mountain of operational experience accumulated since Vietnam” — he returns again and again to its rapid evolution in response to the harsh lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq.   As someone who wrote a PhD dissertation on the frustrations of changing the military’s bureaucratic culture, it’s a marvel to see how much movement has taken place over the last seven or eight years.  And, yes, Don Rumsfeld gets some credit for that.  But our officer corps deserves more.

On the other hand, Barnett argues, we’ve got to get out of a big-war mentality and focus on the reasonable scenarios ahead.   He notes, for example, that despite outspending the rest of the world on defense, we’re spending less as a share of our GDP than we have since WWII.  Further, we have far fewer soldiers per citizen than we ever have during a time of war.   Partly, that’s a function of relying on an all-volunteer force and partly that’s a function of technology serving as a combat multiplier.   Mostly, though, it’s because we spend far too much of our military budget on high priced systems we don’t need and too little of it investing in people and the type of skills they need for the wars of today.

Having made much the same argument myself (albeit to a much smaller and less influential audience) since 1992, I hope to see this shift continue to take place.   For a variety of reasons, though, the institutional pressures are in the other direction.   The Navy and Air Force in particular can’t fight the budget wars without a peer competitor bogeyman.  And there are 535 Members of Congress and an entire defense-industrial complex with interests of their own.

International Institutions

While an advocate of decisive and ambitious American leadership, Barnett is a staunch supporter of intergovernmental organizations like the International Criminal Court and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  He’d like to see NATO-like organizations in every corner of the world.

While I agree with Barnett that working through IGOs can solve a lot of our problems — preventing the international backlash created by Guantanamo, for example — they can also be huge stumbling blocks.   Attempting to get UN backing for the war in Iraq created more problems than it solved for the Bush administration, including an overemphasis on the WMD rationale for invasion.  As a status quo organization, it would never have supported action on the basis of a “Big Bang” argument.

NATO has given legitimacy and some materiel support for our mission in Afghanistan.  But even with widespread agreement that it was both a just and necessary war, getting most member states to make meaningful contributions has been enormously difficult and imposed operational constraints we’d have preferred not to have.  I’m not sure a NATO without a common cultural heritage and sixty years operational experience would work any better.


There are a lot more themes in the book, many of which I’ve explored in previous segments.   Suffice it to say that Great Powers isn’t summer beach reading.  The prose is breezy enough; the author has polished it over years of lectures, PowerPoint briefings, and blog posts.   But the subject matter is weighty and you’ll want a highlighter and a pen to underline things and write notes on the page (note: buy your own copy if you’re doing this).

You’ll find yourself nodding in agreement at times, finding that the author has captured your thoughts perfectly, explaining them in a way where it finally makes sense.  At other times, you may think he’s mad and want to shout obscenities at him (note: don’t do this in public places).

It has been said that great science fiction writers don’t just predict cars, they predict traffic jams.  Barnett jumps ahead to the days when traffic jams have been solved, along with pollution and gas shortages.   I don’t know that I’ll ever live to see that world, but Barnett makes me look forward to it.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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